At Saturday Academy, STEM (and the arts) is at our forefront in programming. We seek to engage young students and offer pathways to explore their curiosities in STEM. Additionally, we understand the value of connecting young folks with STEM professionals and for those professionals to share their stories with the next generation.
Our interim Executive Director, Elizabeth Silberg, who has an extensive history in STEM, has so graciously shared her story with us and provided some fantastic insights into the STEM profession:
1. Could you provide a brief insight into your history with STEM (e.g. what is your professional background)?
Elizabeth: My degree is in Computer Science Engineering from the University of Illinois. After college internships in manufacturing and at a university in France, my post-college technical career was all at IBM. At IBM I started in consulting and programming, then moved into project management, strategy, marketing, and transformation. I worked across 5 different divisions and in roles ranging from extremely established areas of the business (e.g., hardware servers) to building new products and businesses (e.g., Smarter Cities), and eventually worked on transforming established businesses to the current era (e.g., shifting products to online).
2. What is the best part about your profession? Alternative: What do you find rewarding about your profession?
Elizabeth: When I was young my main goal was to help people. When I started in computer science I wasn't sure how that applied at first, but eventually, I realized that the products on which I worked were the essential building blocks of our daily lives. For example, without the products I worked on people would not be able to access their bank accounts easily and cities would have no way to coordinate across departments. Even though our products were sold to private corporations and governments, behind the scenes they helped my neighbors and communities.
In addition, our teams were always encouraged to give back to our communities. I got connected to Saturday Academy’s board of directors and contributed to several other wonderful organizations through my day job. Then eventually, I leveraged the skills I built at IBM to step into the interim Executive Director role here, and I have been happily surprised about how much of my experience has been transferrable. (Plus, the role and team are super fun!) I love that a career can evolve and doesn't have to look anything like your first day or even your first five years on the job.
3. When did you first become inspired in a STEM field? How about in your profession?
Elizabeth: I didn't really think about it in terms of "STEM," but I always appreciated that math and science had clear answers; grades were not subject to interpretation. My parents gave me the insight that if I chose a career in engineering, I would likely only need a bachelor's degree before making a living wage and that sounded pretty good to me. So I went for it. Then I had a different kind of driver when in college. I was brand new to computer science and engineering, and one of 6 women in a class of 250. In my freshman year, a guy in my class told me that I would never make it. The stubborn-headed side of me stuck with it to prove him wrong. I can't even remember who the person was, but it's funny what can drive us sometimes.
I finished my degree with honors and then kept finding new, interesting things to do. That led me to roles across the country and world. I met people with amazing stories and inspired passion, and many work colleagues became close friends. The breadth of opportunities that can stem (pun semi-intended) from STEM is incredible!
4. Is there anything specific in your experiences (i.e. accolades, special events you’ve participated in) that you’d like to highlight?
Elizabeth: I've noticed a lot of younger folks are concerned about being a 'cog' these days and do not want to work for a large company. While there are many great small companies to work at, there are also lots of perks to working at a large company. Most large companies have excellent leadership training programs, opportunities to work across many different areas without sacrificing tenure (and associated benefits), and have influence and resources to shape broader discussions. IBM is at The World Economic Forum this week, helped develop and grow P-TECH to accelerate student skill-building and credentials required for competitive STEM jobs, and develops technology to recycle and end plastic waste, among other initiatives.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the pay. I mentioned earlier that I was excited to make a living wage after 4 years of college. Today there are more options to get into technical careers with even fewer years of school and the average starting wage for entry-level software engineers has soared to $65,000/year in Oregon!*
5. What is one thing that you’d like young professionals entering STEM fields to know?
Elizabeth: A STEM baseline is a great gateway to SO many things! The STEM space is evolving quickly and with the training and practice to develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are taught as part of STEM education, you can likely work your way into any industry or role, including opportunities that are yet undiscovered or even your own ideas!
6. What is something you feel people should be more aware of in the context of STEM or cultural awareness?
Elizabeth: In my experience, STEM has not been a space with deep cultural awareness. This can be tough when there are inequities, but it can also be great. When people are truly seeking the best answer, cultural differences can take a back seat in a healthy way. With STEM advancing so rapidly, much of the language is new enough that it can be universal. I recall being able to have a full technical conversation with a software engineer in Japan, even though neither of us knew each other's language!
7. Any closing thoughts?
Elizabeth: I would encourage all students to explore STEM further, even if they have not yet found their passion within STEM yet. STEM offers an excellent baseline on which students can build next steps, can create impact with scale, and it is increasingly part of every career. And for all you over-achievers out there seeking the ‘best path,’ look for a next step that you think is interesting; eventually, you will look back and realize that was the best path for you.
Thank you so much to Elizabeth for being willing and open in sharing your story with Saturday Academy, and for leading us as our interim Executive Director!
* Per Indeed: https://www.indeed.com/career/entry-level-software-engineer/salaries/OR